Visas in the World
A visa (from the Latin charta visa, meaning “paper that has been seen”) is a conditional authorisation granted by a territory to a foreigner, allowing them to enter, remain within, or to leave that territory. Visas typically may include limits on the duration of the foreigner’s stay, areas within the country they may enter, the dates they may enter, the number of permitted visits or an individual’s right to work in the country in question. Visas are associated with the request for permission to enter a territory and thus are, in most countries, distinct from actual formal permission for an alien to enter and remain in the country. In each instance, a visa is subject to entry permission by an immigration official at the time of actual entry, and can be revoked at any time. A visa most commonly takes the form of a sticker endorsed in the applicant’s passport or other travel document.
Visa applications in advance of arrival give countries a chance to consider the applicant’s circumstances, such as financial security, reason for travel, and details of previous visits to the country. Visitors may also be required to undergo and pass security or health checks upon arrival at the port of entry. Some countries require that their citizens, as well as foreign travellers, obtain an “exit visa” to be allowed to leave the country.
In western Europe in the late 19th century and early 20th century, passports and visas were not generally necessary for moving from one country to another. The relatively high speed and large movements of people travelling by train would have caused bottlenecks if regular passport controls had been used. Passports and visas became usually necessary as travel documents only after World War I.
Long before that, in ancient times, passports and visas were usually the same type of travel documents. In the modern world, visas have become separate secondary travel documents, with passports acting as the primary travel documents.
Conditions of issue
Some visas can be granted on arrival or by prior application at the country’s embassy or consulate, or through a private visa service specialist who is specialised in the issuance of international travel documents. These agencies are authorised by the foreign authority, embassy, or consulate to represent international travellers who are unable or unwilling to travel to the embassy and apply in person. Private visa and passport services collect an additional fee for verifying customer applications, supporting documents, and submitting them to the appropriate authority. If there is no embassy or consulate in one’s home country, then one would have to travel to a third country (or apply by post) and try to get a visa issued there. Alternatively, in such cases visas may be pre-arranged for collection on arrival at the border. The need or absence of need of a visa generally depends on the citizenship of the applicant, the intended duration of the stay, and the activities that the applicant may wish to undertake in the country he visits; these may delineate different formal categories of visas, with different issue conditions.
The issuing authority, usually a branch of the country’s foreign ministry or department (e.g. U.S. State Department), and typically consular affairs officers, may request appropriate documentation from the applicant. This may include proof that the applicant is able to support himself in the host country (lodging, food), proof that the person hosting the applicant in his or her home really exists and has sufficient room for hosting the applicant, proof that the applicant has obtained health and evacuation insurance, etc. Some countries ask for proof of health status, especially for long-term visas; some countries deny such visas to persons with certain illnesses, such as AIDS. The exact conditions depend on the country and category of visa. Notable examples of countries requiring HIV tests of long-term residents are Russia and Uzbekistan. In Uzbekistan, however, the HIV test requirement is sometimes not strictly enforced. Other countries require a medical test that includes an HIV test, even for a short-term tourism visa. For example, Cuban citizens and international exchange students require such a test approved by a medical authority to enter Chilean territory.
The issuing authority may also require applicants to attest that they have no criminal convictions, or that they not participate in certain activities (like prostitution or drug trafficking). Some countries will deny visas if travellers’ passports show evidence of citizenship of, or travel to, a country that is considered hostile by that country. For example, some Arabic-oriented countries will not issue visas to nationals of Israel and those whose passports bear evidence of visiting Israel.
Many countries frequently demand strong evidence of intent to return to the home country, if the visa is for a temporary stay, due to potential unwanted illegal immigration.
Each country typically has a multitude of categories of visas with various names. The most common types and names of visas include:
For passing through the country of issue to a destination outside that country. Validity of transit visas are usually limited by short terms such as several hours to ten days depending on the size of the country or the circumstances of a particular transit itinerary.
- Airside transit visa, required by some countries for passing through their airports even without going through passport control.
- Crew member, steward or driver visa, issued to persons employed or trained on aircraft, vessels, trains, trucks, buses and any other means of international transportation, or ships fishing in international waters.
Short-stay or visitor visas
For short visits to the visited country. Many countries differentiate between different reasons for these visits, such as:
- Private visa, for private visits by invitation from residents of the visited country.
- Tourist visa, for a limited period of leisure travel, no business activities allowed.
- Visa for medical reasons, for undertaking diagnostics or a course of treatment in the visited country’s hospitals or other medical facilities.
- Business visa, for engaging in commerce in the country. These visas generally preclude permanent employment, for which a work visa would be required.
- Working holiday visa, for individuals travelling between nations offering a working holiday program, allowing young people to undertake temporary work while travelling.
- Athletic or artistic visa, issued to athletes and performing artists (and their supporting staff) performing at competitions, concerts, shows and other events.
- Cultural exchange visa, usually issued to athletes and performing artists participating in a cultural exchange program.
- Refugee visa, issued to persons fleeing the dangers of persecution, a war or a natural disaster.
- Pilgrimage visa: this type of visa is mainly issued to those intending to visit religious destinations, as for example in Saudi Arabia or Iran, and to take part in particular religious ceremonies. Such visas can usually be obtained relatively quickly and at low cost; those using them are usually permitted to travel only as a group, however. The best example is Hajj visas for Saudi Arabia.
- Digital nomad visa, for digital nomads who want to temporarily reside in a country while performing remote work. Thailand launched its SMART Visa, targeted at high expertise foreigners and entrepreneurs to stay a longer time in Thailand, with online applications for the visa being planned for late 2018. Estonia has also announced plans for a digital nomad visa, after the launch of its e-Residency program.
Visas valid for long term stays of a specific duration include:
- Student visa (F-1 in the United States), which allows its holder to study at an institution of higher learning in the issuing country. The F-2 visa allows the student’s dependents to accompany them in the United States.
- Research visa, for students doing fieldwork in the host country.
- Temporary worker visa, for approved employment in the host country. These are generally more difficult to obtain but valid for longer periods of time than a business visa. Examples of these are the United States’ H-1B and L-1 visas. Depending on a particular country, the status of temporary worker may or may not evolve into the status of permanent resident or to naturalization.
- Journalist visa, which some countries require of people in that occupation when travelling for their respective news organizations. Countries that insist on this include Cuba, China, Iran, Japan, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, the United States (I-visa) and Zimbabwe.
- Residence visa, granted to people obtaining long-term residence in the host country. In some countries, such as New Zealand, long-term residence is a necessary step to obtain the status of a permanent resident.
- Asylum visa, issued to people who have suffered or reasonably fear persecution in their own country due to their political activities or opinion, or features, or association with a social group; or were exiled from their own country.
Granted for those intending to settle permanently in the issuing country (obtain the status of a permanent resident with a prospect of possible naturalization in the future):
- Spouse visa or partner visa, granted to the spouse, civil partner or de facto partner of a resident or citizen of a given country to enable the couple to settle in that country.
- Marriage visa, granted for a limited period before intended marriage or civil partnership based on a proven relationship with a citizen of the destination country. For example, a German woman wishing to marry an American man would obtain a Fiancée Visa (also known as a K-1 visa) to allow her to enter the United States. A K1 Fiancée Visa is valid for four months from the date of its approval.
- Pensioner visa (also known as retiree visa or retirement visa), issued by a limited number of countries (Australia, Argentina, Thailand, Panama, etc.), to those who can demonstrate a foreign source of income and who do not intend to work in the issuing country. Age limits apply in some cases.
These are granted to officials doing jobs for their governments, or otherwise representing their countries in the host country, such as the personnel of diplomatic missions.
- Diplomatic visas are normally only available to bearers of diplomatic passports.
- Courtesy visas are issued to representatives of foreign governments or international organizations who do not qualify for diplomatic status but do merit expedited, courteous treatment – an example of this is Australia’s special purpose visa.
By method of issue
Normally visa applications are made at and collected from a consulate, embassy or other diplomatic mission.
Also known as visas on arrival (VOA), they are granted at a port of entry. This is distinct from visa-free entry, where no visa is required, as the visitor must still obtain the visa on arrival before proceeding to immigration control.
- Almost all countries will consider issuing a visa (or another document to the same effect) on arrival to a visitor arriving in unforeseen exceptional circumstances.
- Some countries issue visas on arrival to special categories of travellers, such as seafarers or air crew.
- Some countries issue them to regular visitors; there often are restrictions.
An electronic visa (e-Visa or eVisa) is stored in a computer and is linked to the passport number so no label, sticker or stamp is placed in the passport before travel. The application is done over the internet, and the receipt acts as a visa, which can be printed or stored on a mobile device.
Entry and duration period
Visas can also be single-entry, which means the visa is cancelled as soon as the holder leaves the country; double-entry, or multiple-entry, which permits double or multiple entries into the country with the same visa. Countries may also issue re-entry permits that allow temporarily leaving the country without invalidating the visa. Even a business visa will normally not allow the holder to work in the host country without an additional work permit.
Once issued, a visa will typically have to be used within a certain period of time.
With some countries, the validity of a visa is not the same as the authorised period of stay. The visa validity then indicates the time period when entry is permitted into the country. For example, if a visa has been issued to begin on January 1 and to expire on March 30, and the typical authorised period of stay in a country is 90 days, then the 90-day authorised stay starts on the day the passenger enters the country (entrance has to be between 1 January and 30 March). Thus, the latest day the traveller could conceivably stay in the issuing country is 1 July (if the traveller entered on 30 March). This interpretation of visas is common in the Americas.
With other countries, a person may not stay beyond the period of validity of their visa, which is usually set within the period of validity of their passport. The visa may also limit the total number of days the visitor may spend in the applicable territory within the period of validity. This interpretation of visa periods is common in Europe.
Once in the country, the validity period of a visa or authorised stay can often be extended for a fee at the discretion of immigration authorities. Overstaying a period of authorised stay given by the immigration officers is considered illegal immigration even if the visa validity period isn’t over (i.e., for multiple entry visas) and a form of being “out of status” and the offender may be fined, prosecuted, deported, or even blacklisted from entering the country again.
Entering a country without a valid visa or visa exemption may result in detention and removal (deportation or exclusion) from the country. Undertaking activities that are not authorised by the status of entry (for example, working while possessing a non-worker tourist status) can result in the individual being deemed liable for deportation—commonly referred to as an illegal alien. Such violation is not a violation of a visa, despite the common misuse of the phrase, but a violation of status; hence the term “out of status”.
Even having a visa does not guarantee entry to the host country. The border crossing authorities make the final determination to allow entry, and may even cancel a visa at the border if the alien cannot demonstrate to their satisfaction that they will abide by the status their visa grants them.
Some countries that do not require visas for short stays may require a long-stay visa for those who intend to apply for a residence permit. For example, the EU does not require a visa of citizens of many countries for stays under 90 days, but its member states require a long-stay visa of such citizens for longer stays.
Many countries have a mechanism to allow the holder of a visa to apply to extend a visa. In Denmark, a visa holder can apply to the Danish Immigration Service for a Residence Permit after they have arrived in the country. In the United Kingdom, applications can be made to UK Visas and Immigration.
In certain circumstances, it is not possible for the holder of the visa to do this, either because the country does not have a mechanism to prolong visas or, most likely, because the holder of the visa is using a short stay visa to live in a country.
Some foreign visitors sometimes engage in what is known as a visa run: leaving a country—usually to a neighbouring country—for a short period just before the permitted length of stay expires, then returning to the first country to get a new entry stamp in order to extend their stay (“reset the clock”). Despite the name, a visa run is usually done with a passport that can be used for entry without a visa.
Visa runs are frowned upon by immigration authorities as such acts may signify that the foreigner wishes to reside permanently and might also work in that country; purposes that visitors are prohibited from engaging in and usually require an immigrant visa or a work visa. Immigration officers may deny re-entry to visitors suspected of engaging in prohibited activities, especially when they have done repeated visa runs and have no evidence of spending reasonable time in their home countries or countries where they have the right to reside and work.
To combat visa runs, some countries have limits on how long visitors can spend in the country without a visa, as well as how much time they have to stay out before “resetting the clock”. For example, Schengen countries impose a maximum limit for visitors of 90 days in any 180-day period. Some countries do not “reset the clock” when a visitor comes back after visiting a neighbouring country. For example, the United States does not give visitors a new period of stay when they come back from visiting Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean; instead they are readmitted to the United States for the remaining days granted on their initial entry. Some other countries, e.g. Thailand, allow visitors who arrive by land from neighbouring countries a shorter length of stay than those who arrive by air.
In some cases, a visa run is necessary to activate new visas or change the immigration status of a person. An example would be leaving a country and then returning immediately to activate a newly issued work visa before a person can legally work.
In general, an applicant may be refused a visa if he or she does not meet the requirements for admission or entry under that country’s immigration laws. More specifically, a visa may be denied or refused when the applicant:
- has committed fraud, deception or misrepresentation in his or her current application as well as in a previous application
- has obtained a criminal record, has been arrested, or has criminal charges pending
- is considered to be a threat to national security
- does not have a good moral character
- has previous visa/immigration violations (even if the violations didn’t happen in the country the applicant is seeking a visa for)
- had their previous visa application(s) or application for immigration benefits refused and cannot prove that the reasons for the previous refusals no longer exist or are not applicable any more (even if the refusals didn’t previously happen in the country the applicant is seeking a visa for)
- cannot prove to have strong ties to their current country of nationality or residence (for those who are applying for temporary or non-immigrant visas)
- intends to reside or work permanently in the country she/he will visit if not applying for an immigrant or work visa respectively
- fails to demonstrate intent to return (for non-immigrants)
- fails to provide sufficient evidence/documents to prove eligibility for the visa sought after
- does not have a legitimate reason for the journey
- does not have adequate means of financial support for themselves or family
- does not have adequate medical insurance, especially if engaging in high risk activities (e.g. rock climbing, skiing, etc)
- does not have travel arrangements (i.e. transport and lodging) in the destination country
- does not have health/travel insurance valid for the destination and the duration of stay
- is a citizen of a country to which the destination country is hostile or at war with
- has previously visited, or intends to visit, a country to which the destination country is hostile
- has a communicable disease, such as tuberculosis or ebola, or a sexually transmitted disease
- has a passport that expires too soon
- didn’t use a previously issued visa at all without a valid reason (e.g., a trip cancellation due to a family emergency)
Even if a traveller does not need a visa, the aforementioned criteria can also be used by border control officials to refuse the traveller entry into the country in question.
The main reasons states impose visa restrictions on foreign nationals are to curb illegal immigration, security concerns, and reciprocity for visa restrictions imposed on their own nationals. Typically, nations impose visa restrictions on citizens of poorer countries, along with politically unstable and undemocratic ones, as it is considered more likely that people from these countries will seek to illegally immigrate. Visa restrictions may also be imposed when nationals of another country are perceived as likelier to be terrorists or criminals, or by autocratic regimes that perceive foreign influence to be a threat to their rule. According to Professor Eric Neumayer of the London School of Economics:
“The poorer, the less democratic and the more exposed to armed political conflict the target country is, the more likely that visa restrictions are in place against its passport holders. The same is true for countries whose nationals have been major perpetrators of terrorist acts in the past”.
Some countries apply the principle of reciprocity in their visa policy. A country’s visa policy is called ‘reciprocal’ if it imposes visa requirement against citizens of all the countries that impose visa requirements against its own citizens. The opposite is rarely true: a country rarely lifts visa requirements against citizens of all the countries that also lift visa requirements against its own citizens, unless a prior bilateral agreement has been made.
A fee may be charged for issuing a visa; these are often also reciprocal—hence, if country A charges country B’s citizens US$50 for a visa, country B will often also charge the same amount for country A’s visitors. The fee charged may also be at the discretion of each embassy. A similar reciprocity often applies to the duration of the visa (the period in which one is permitted to request entry of the country) and the number of entries one can attempt with the visa. Other restrictions, such as requiring fingerprints and photographs, may also be reciprocated. Expedited processing of the visa application for some countries will generally incur additional charges.
Government authorities usually impose administrative entry restrictions on foreign citizens in three ways – countries whose nationals may enter without a visa, countries whose nationals may obtain a visa on arrival and countries whose nationals require a visa in advance. Nationals who require a visa in advance are usually advised to obtain them at a diplomatic mission of their destination country. Several countries allow nationals of countries that require a visa to obtain them online.
The following table lists visa policies of all countries by the number of foreign nationalities that may enter that country for tourism without a visa or by obtaining a visa on arrival with normal passport. It also notes countries that issue electronic visas to certain nationalities. Symbol “+” indicates a country that limits the visa-free regime negatively by only listing nationals who require a visa, thus the number represents the number of UN member states reduced by the number of nationals who require a visa and “+” stands for all possible non-UN member state nationals that might also not require a visa. “N/A” indicates countries that have contradictory information on its official websites or information supplied by the Government to IATA. Some countries that allow visa on arrival do so only at a limited number of entry points. Some countries such as the European Union member states have a qualitatively different visa regime between each other as it also includes freedom of movement.
Visa exemption agreements
Possession of a valid visa is a condition for entry into many countries, and exemption schemes exist. In some cases visa-free entry may be granted to holders of diplomatic passports even as visas are required by normal passport holders.
Some countries have reciprocal agreements such that a visa is not needed under certain conditions, e.g., when the visit is for tourism and for a relatively short period. Such reciprocal agreements may stem from common membership in international organizations or a shared heritage:
- All citizens of European Union (EU) and EFTA member countries can travel to and stay in all other EU and EFTA countries without a visa. See Four Freedoms (European Union) and Citizenship of the European Union.
- The United States Visa Waiver Program allows citizens of 38 countries to travel to the United States without a visa (although a pre-trip entry permission, ESTA, is needed).
- Any Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) citizen can enter and stay as long as required in any other GCC member state.
- All citizens of members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), excluding those defined by law as undesirable aliens, may enter and stay without a visa in any member state for a maximum period of 90 days. The only requirement is a valid travel document and international vaccination certificates.
- Nationals of the East African Community member states do not need visas for entry into any of the member states.
- Some countries in the Commonwealth do not require tourist visas of citizens of other Commonwealth countries.
- Citizens of member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations do not require tourist visas to visit another member state, with the exception of Myanmar. Until 2009, Burmese citizens were required to have visas to enter all other ASEAN countries. Following the implementation of visa exemption agreements with the other ASEAN countries, in 2016 Burmese citizens are only required to have visas to enter Malaysia and Singapore. Myanmar and Singapore had agreed on a visa exemption scheme set to be implemented on 1 December 2016. ASEAN citizens are entitled to use the Burmese visa on arrival facility.
- Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) member states mutually allow their citizens to enter visa-free, at least for short stays. There are exceptions between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
- Nepal and India allow their citizens to enter, live and work in each other’s countries due to the Indo-Nepal friendship treaty of 1951. Indians do not require a visa or passport to travel to Bhutan and are only required to obtain passes at the border checkpoints, whilst Bhutan nationals holding a valid Bhutanese passport are authorised to enter India without a visa.
Other countries may unilaterally grant visa-free entry to nationals of certain countries to facilitate tourism, promote business, or even to cut expenses on maintaining consular posts abroad.
Some of the considerations for a country to grant visa-free entry to another country include (but are not limited to):
- being a low security risk for the country potentially granting visa-free entry
- diplomatic relationship between two countries
- conditions in the visitor’s home country as compared to the host country
- having a low risk of overstaying or violating visa terms in the country potentially granting visa-free entry
To have a smaller worldwide diplomatic staff, some countries rely on other country’s (or countries’) judgments when issuing visas. For example, Mexico allows citizens of all countries to enter without Mexican visas if they possess a valid American visa that has already been used. Costa Rica accepts valid visas of Schengen/EU countries, Canada, Japan, South Korea and the United States (if valid for at least 3 months on date of arrival). The ultimate example of such reliance is Andorra, which imposes no visa requirements of its own because it has no international airport and is inaccessible by land without passing through the territory of either France or Spain and is thus “protected” by the Schengen visa system.
Visa-free travel between countries also occurs in all cases where passports (or passport-replacing documents such as laissez-passer) are not needed for such travel.
As of 2019, the Henley & Partners passport index ranks the Japanese, Singaporean and South Korean passports as the ones with the most visa exemptions by other nations, allowing holders of those passports to visit 189 countries without obtaining a visa in advance of arrival. However, as of 6 June 2019, the Passport Index ranks the United Arab Emirates passport as the one with the most visa exemptions by other nations, allowing holders of this passport to visit 173 countries without obtaining a visa in advance of arrival.
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